SMA Alumna Reflects on Volunteer Service at El Paso Shelter for Immigrants
By Isabel Forward
On the ride home, as I smelled vaguely of vomit, I thought of the many ways these families had suffered during their time here – so much so, that even accepting relief from this suffering when it’s offered isn’t always possible.
The most difficult part of my experience to process was not the starving, the sickness, the physical suffering alone, but witnessing the instillment of this message: that as immigrants, they are inherently degenerate, undeserving, and less than human.
What am I doing here?
I first asked myself this question as I boarded my flight to El Paso in the days after Christmas. Hours before, I had been home with family. We had all planned to fly to the border to volunteer with Annunciation House, but as our plans began to fall apart, I continued to exchange emails with the volunteer coordinator. I sent in clearances and arranged housing. I bought a round-trip ticket for two weeks in El Paso, but when confronted with the idea of actually going – of packing the right amount of clothing to sustain two weeks without laundry, of cramming a twelve-pack of granola bars into my suitcase, of electing which books to bring as I stayed in a house with mostly nuns – I became nervous.
I prepared for El Paso fascinated with the idea that my presence, fully equipped with intermediate Spanish and an academic rhetoric surrounding issues of immigration, would transform me into a good person. Reaching down to stand in the same place as the vulnerable would canonize me. I became so caught up in the idea of achieving this good personhood that I had forgotten to think about actually volunteering.
My mom sensed my unease as I prepared to exclude myself from the remainder of the holidays. We heard our extended family downstairs talking and laughing to the music, and my mom looked at me. “You don’t have to go. There will be other volunteers. It doesn’t always have to be you.”
The next morning, my sister drove me to the airport, and I departed with 22 pairs of underwear and a fear of nothing more than the discomfort I knew would probably come.
As I woke up at 5:45 the next morning, I asked myself again What am I doing here?
I first realized that I was in trouble when I found that the surrounding population of volunteers were made predominantly nuns. I had decided to look for distinction for my good personhood while surrounded by women who had dedicated their lives to being good people. I felt as though their supreme goodness cancelled out my own. On the first day, I was already relegated from my good-person status and returned to regular personhood. Shoot.
When I realized what the job entailed, the volunteer work became less romanticized. That morning, I learned quickly that most of the tasks at the shelter are menial. I was assigned to Centro de San Juan Diego, a family shelter that functions as a part of a much larger network of volunteer-run shelters along the border in El Paso under Annunciation House. Sue, the volunteer coordinator, describes it as a “travel agency/bed and breakfast” for immigrants who have recently been released from detention centers — but without the beds. During the morning shifts, I woke people up at 8 AM, made breakfast, and served them. I made care packages filled with food, snacks, water, blankets, and toys for younger children for the one day, two day, or three day long bus rides they were about to undertake. I answered phones for family members who had purchased tickets for their family members, trying to bridge communication when we both had learned Spanish as a second language. I responded to guests’ questions in poor Spanish and made soup in anticipation of our new arrivals. I said goodbye to the people I had met the day before as they departed for the Greyhound or Tornado bus stations.
On my first day, I encountered a new group of guests arriving at the center. We greeted weary eyes and tired gaits with colorful signs reading Bienvenidos. I served soup to a silent group of fifty people who resembled prisoners. They bore trackers on their ankles, reminding them of their outsider status and their fatigue slowed their movements. As I registered families and then walked them over to receive clothes, we talked about their experience traveling.
Before coming to El Paso, I read stories. I viewed images on news sites and on social media. I shared and re-shared without becoming proximate to the suffering I was witnessing. But I felt incredibly unprepared to witness their suffering.
As I spoke with parents, I looked into their red, swollen eyes. A crust seemed to have dried around them and on their faces – perhaps from infection, residue from crossing the flooded river, or from tears. Almost every family, upon exiting the centers, required medical attention. Almost every volunteer, after a week at the center, required this same attention.
One child under three years old contracted pneumonia in the center. He became septic, and we called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. He remained there for a week, as he was treated for the worst pneumonia the doctors had ever seen in someone his age. Later, we put him and his pregnant mother on a Greyhound Bus to North Carolina per her request and against the doctor’s recommendation, as she was afraid they would miss their court date and be deported.
I began to walk over to the clothes center with one man and his daughter. He appeared teary, as if he would begin to cry at any moment. I attempted to lighten his weighted look, so I asked him about the soup he received upon his arrival. He responded, “Esta sopa era la sopa más rica de mi vida.”
I learned that he hadn’t eaten in the nine days he spent in detention. The few meals he received, he gave to his daughter. She would rip the tortilla off of the rock-like burrito and leave the icy clumps to melt.
As I selected coats I thought the father would like, he said that all he really wanted was a new set of pants. I showed him the pants, and as we looked through, he gestured to his own dirtied jeans. He told me that he had walked through the Rio Grande in his pants, and afterwards, they had frozen to his legs. Only the day before had they thawed.
Among many stories, the one of this man and his daughter has stuck with me, but there is no singular immigrant experience.
I later learned that most people remained in the detention centers for over a week, often saying that they hadn’t eaten at all or ate sparingly during this time. The officers often provided one to two meals for the day; the consistency of food allocation didn’t seem to depend on anything more than the will or memory of the officers on duty. As they distributed burritos from the freezer to the families — families who have been waiting in lines outside of the detention centers for days with or without food — their hope for satiation fell. Many parents gave their burritos to their children, hoping that at least their children would be satisfied. Most children ate only the frozen tortilla.
Many families told me that the detention centers themselves always remained colder than the outside temperature. El Paso, in this week in January, fell to temperatures in the teens, as snow fell and ice coated the roads. Unprepared families spoke of these dehumanizing conditions.
I roughly fitted three boys and their mother for new shoes, as they spent the final months of their year walking to the United States from Honduras.
I disinfected shoes that a woman said smelled rotten after walking through multiple bodies of water as they came from El Salvador.
Daily, I sewed a woman’s pants back on her body, after having to rip her only pair of pants off in order to click on her tracking device, over and over again.
Often, when in charge of hygiene product distribution, children come up to the table and just talk. Ten kids at a time would stand in front of the lotion and shaving cream, making up reasons they needed different products. Mi madre necesitalo por su pelo. Por favor or Mi hermano no recibió sepilla de dientes. Puedo lo traerlo? They would tell me they wanted to help hand out products, using that time instead to give each other Mohawks with coconut oil. At this table I taught kids how to hula hoop, how to spin a turn top, and how to draw different animals. Later, they would rush up to me as I came out of the office, yelling mirame mirame Isabel, as they kept the hula hoop up for longer than they had the day before, spun the turn top down the hallway, or drew dozens of pictures of hearts, swords, and animals for me to see.
The night of our largest intake, I got to spend time with children in the cafeteria once we had finished most bookings in the office. I drew with them and taught them words in English, writing words on sticky notes and labelling the items in the room. We made silly faces (a universal language, I’ve learned). We laughed at our own silliness, but were often interrupted by a child throwing up on the art he or she had just created. Multiple children, in the span of a night, would have fits of throwing up. I would guide them to the bathroom to clean up, wipe the floors, and hand wash their clothes. I would talk to their mothers or fathers, and then bring them to the nurse’s office. In the span of an hour, I guided four children over.
The nurse approached me. They didn’t have the flu. They didn’t have a virus. They had contracted no form of food poisoning. They had been starved for so long, that when they finally had food, their bodies rejected it.
On the ride home, as I smelled vaguely of vomit, I thought of the many ways these families had suffered during their time – so much so, that they cannot accept relief of this suffering when offered. The most difficult part of my experience to process was not the starving, the sickness, the physical suffering alone, but witnessing the instillment of this message: that as immigrants, they are inherently degenerate, undeserving, and less than human. I witnessed this shame attach itself to their psyches as I received children apologizing for their sick state, adults scolding their family members for assuming that they would receive three meals at our center, to see the devaluing of this population’s existence become so strong that they began to devalue themselves. This was the most difficult part.
I asked myself again, Why am I here?
I went home and I talked to some friends on the phone. Looking around, I felt overwhelmed seeing my full box of granola bars. The luxury of a shower. Knowing I would return to Denver. My friends gave me validation of my work here. They gave me the reminder that I needed. They told me that I was a good person. They gave me the label I was looking for, but I no longer felt the satisfied with the label.
When I hung up, I began to feel the weight of all that I had witnessed and of my own ambiguous role to alleviate this suffering. I didn’t want to be a “good person” anymore. I didn’t want to engage in an exchange that required my position as a superior reaching down to those perceived as less than I am. I needed to bring these people close to me, to bind myself to them, to eliminate the perception of any separateness between us. I needed us to be recognized as equals.
As I continued my work in El Paso, I had to let go of all that would identify me as greater than. I had to recognize my privilege- my education, my status, my race, and my citizenship. I made myself vulnerable to the people I connected with. I stood in front of them, bare, human, and equal.
I acted as a server to those who could offer me no tip. I snuck extra bread to children, and they would laugh in delight. (They didn’t know that I snuck bread to all of the children, but instilling this idea in younger boys and girls that someone was looking out for their personal, individual interest, felt more important).
I taught English to those who only spoke indigenous Central American languages. I sat at the dining hall table, surrounded by children, mothers, and fathers, teaching the alphabet (to many who had never seen it before), pronouncing common phrases. Hello. How are you? I am doing well. We also pronounced useful phrases. I am from Honduras. My English is not very good. Is there someone here who speaks Spanish?
I approached individuals who stood in front of the U.S. Map in the hallway, just looking. I asked where they were were going, and pointed out the cities on the map. They inquired about the weather and about the people. One day, about thirty adults and children had gathered around the map as I explained in broken Spanish the different cultural norms of different states. Roughly translated, I told them that “People in California are relaxed,” while “People in New York are busy.” “People in Florida are old and warm,” and “People in Washington like to hike.” I received many nods and looks of understanding. One man took notes.
On my first day, I approached a group of fathers gathered around the map and asked what they were looking for. One of the men looked at me, and asked ¿Donde está Guatemala? I pointed to a spot near the floor about two feet under the map, and they all began to laugh. I learned, as I approached people looking at the map again and again, that I needed to introduce the map as only of the United States. Many people – those who took the bus from Central America, and those who had walked – had no idea how far they had come. They had no idea how far they had to go.
Often, I escaped the logistical work of the office to check the map, to see if there were children wandering the halls, or to see if people were waiting for me in the cafeteria for lessons in English. The volunteer coordinator would ask me where I had disappeared to during these times spent with the families, and I sometimes even felt a degree of guilt for not completing the more office work that needed to be done. However, in the moments between registering guests and booking flights, I found purpose in this shelter.
As guests left, we would send them off with well wishes and enough food for their journey. I made a bag for the same father-daughter duo I had walked to the clothing shelter – the family who had starved, who had frozen, and who had since found a certain degree of tranquility in this shelter for their short time here. As I prepared soup for the next group coming in, I saw the father walking frantically through the doors, looking for something. “It’s time for you to go!” I said, pointing him towards the car parked outside. He saw me and ran over. He came close and his eyes began to well up. “I needed to say thank you. I needed to say something to you: Dios es contigo.” He began to cry as he continued to repeatedly thank me for all that I had done (which realistically, wasn’t much). When his driver came to take him to the car, those words repeated themselves again and again: Dios es contigo. Dios es contigo. Dios es contigo.
My own Spanish has many flaws – I completed my studies at my university without accomplishing fluency. However, one of the first lessons Spanish students learn is the differentiation between está and es. In English, they both directly translate as conjugations of to be. However, in Spanish, está takes on a degree of temporality, while es holds onto a sense of permanence. In what I believed was a mistake, as this man told me, Dios es contigo was a statement. God is not fleetingly with me. He is not standing by me, as está would suggest. This man, whom I had met only two days before, suggested that God’s presence with me is more permanent than that; that God is an integral part of who I am.
As much as I am humbled and often in denial of any piece of divinity within me, I recognized that there is something sacred, something divine, in the interactions we have had here. Not only between this man who had endured the utmost suffering and me, but of all of those who had allowed themselves to connect with me – who refused to let their suffering harden them, and instead took my offer of companionship with open arms.
About a week in, the volunteer coordinator told me that the majority of the people we met would be deported back to their country of origin. More than ever, I asked myself, Why am I here?
I questioned my significance. The people so full of hope – who remained just as unaware of their likely future as I was – whom I had invested my energy in, whom I had connected with, whom I had grown to love, most likely would be sent back. Much of the soup I made I would later be cleaned up from the floors in the form of vomit. The cards I had made for children would become relics of a fleeting attempt to give hope for a better life. If most of the work that had been done here would be reversed, and if my menial tasks and limited interactions were only a drop in the ocean of what needs to be done, why am I here?
As I returned home and came back to school, I found myself broken because of the ways in which I have tied myself to these people. I felt uneasy about where I should go – and who I should be – as I carried this newfound brokenness within me. I still find myself feeling helpless in the face of the multitude of human rights violations at the border. My attempts to educate, inform, and raise awareness can sometimes feel as though I am yelling into a void. When my world seems to function on currencies of power, privilege, and wealth, I feel helpless attempting to elicit empathy for people who lack these advantages.
If I were to live my life, day to day, normally, I could easily forget what I saw and who I met at the border. However, I must keep my heart open. Every time I meet a new face – every time I see an orange puffer jacket, and every time I don’t – I must let it break, over and over again. And I must continue to love anyway.
Last week, I attended a keynote presentation by a prominent human rights activist. He argued, “Love alone will not save us.” But as I walked back to my apartment that night, I couldn’t help but think of the many small wounds that were healed during my time in El Paso: the many bridges that were built, the many separations that were deconstructed. I imagine this love, on a systemic level, and I found myself disagreeing with his statement. Dialogue, action, and advocacy play an important role in the promotion of justice, but without love, they are nothing. I propose a new argument: Love, alone, can heal our brokenness.
I traveled to El Paso with the understanding that I wanted to be a good person. I wanted to be altruistic as I gave myself to people I didn’t know, but my idea of what it is to be a good person fell apart.
The idea of selfless giving – or on a greater scale, the entire premise of altruism – is based on the idea that the self is contained within one person. But this assumption invalidates the concepts of connection and empathy – the idea that we find pieces of ourselves in others, and that to a certain degree, my struggles are connected with theirs. Even if I have not been where they are, we have the capacity to imagine and to sympathize. Using this imagination, I have tied our salvations together. Serving others, in a way, will always be serving myself – not because of my own ability to call myself good because of it, but because there are pieces of myself in them.
This feeling of self-satisfaction we get is only further confirmation that we are all connected and that we are inherently programmed to be in kinship with one another. Essentially we receive a genetic reward for fulfilling our pre-programmed disposition to be good people.
This spectrum of good and bad, of giver and recipient, and of greater and lesser fell apart. We are all people who embrace our common humanity to differing degrees for different reasons: we separate ourselves out of self-preservation, of fear, or of comfort.
My job is not to say who on this spectrum is right and who is wrong. But I have an obligation to invite the protected, the mighty, and the powerful to vulnerability. Here, hearts are broken. Barriers are deconstructed. But here we belong to each other.
I am not here because I am a good person. I am here because I have no choice; I cannot escape my humanity. I am here, standing with the most vulnerable, because they are mine. Because I am theirs. Because as long as I deny their humanity, I deny my own. Because I am tied to them and their salvation. Because our humanity binds us together.
I failed to emerge from El Paso as a good person. As I returned to Denver, I stood, only a person, free of identifiers that suggest superiority or separation. Fully a person. Entirely human.
And it is so much better than good.
(Editor’s note: Isabel Forward is a St. Mary’s Academy alumna and currently a student at Villanova.)